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The long way back from Bedlam to Bethlehem

  • 25 August 2023
Failed Ambitions: Kew Cottages and Changing Ideas of Intellectual Disabilities by Lee-Ann Monk and David Henderson (with others) (Monash University Publishing, 2023) To ageing Victorians, the Kew Cottages are synonymous with controversy. Memories of the institution may include the abiding conflict between the interests of the nobs of Kew and the residents of the Asylum and Cottages, the regular Public Enquiries, the appointment of the charismatic Cunningham Dax, the changes in ways of thinking and speaking about mental illness and intellectual disability, the unholy confluence of neo-liberal economics and the move away from institutionalisation, and the eventual transfer of people from the Cottages into small, supported homes in the community. 

Failed Ambitions sets and corrects those memories within a much broader canvas. It traces the history of the Cottages back to the institution’s antecedents in the Gold Rushes and sets it within the context of changing theories of mental illness and intellectual disabilities and changing public attitudes to the people affected by them. The book also raises questions with a significance beyond the history. They include the relationship between popular ideologies and government attitudes in the treatment of people who are vulnerable, the importance of voice in carrying through needed reform, and the reciprocal relationship between the words used to describe people with disadvantage and popular attitudes to them and their conditions. These questions are also central in current reflection on the treatment of Indigenous people, of Indigenous children in the justice system, and of refugee children under the Immigration system.

The story     

The story of the Cottages begins with the Victorian Gold Rush. The massive spike in immigration was accompanied by social disruption and a significant number of people who were insane or mentally ill, with no one to attend them. Previously, people with mental illness or intellectual disabilities were generally supported in their families. But the growth in a transient population and the disruption to stable relationships overwhelmed this care.

This led to a pattern, repeated throughout the history of the Cottages: public concern, often focused by the Press, led to the appointment of a superintendent familiar with the latest theory and practice, the incorporation of best practice into Victoria, the building of asylums and the subsequent neglect of maintenance and support.

Edward Paley, appointed in 1873 as superintendent, oversaw the building of the Kew Asylum and other regional institutions. He recognised that theory and practice overseas at the time was based on